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Opposites attract: Well-armed A's next in line

He said it in March, just as generations of baseball men before him did.

Pitching and defense win games in October, Red Sox manager Grady Little said. Pitching and defense win championships.

Nearly seven months later, Little will lead baseball's most fearsome offensive machine against the Oakland A's -- a team that leads the American League in pitching, is Boston's superior in defense, but is among the bottom-feeders offensively -- in the first round of the American League playoffs.

The A's are qualifying for the postseason for the fourth successive season, but have been bounced in the first round in each of the last three years, twice by the Yankees and last season by the Minnesota Twins. Those failures all came under Art Howe; this will be the first crack for Ken Macha, who managed Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon in the minors.

The Sox are back in the postseason for the first time since being eliminated by the Yankees in the 1999 ALCS, but have not fared well against the A's in their last two postseason encounters, getting swept in 1988 and 1990.

Some A's, such as third baseman Eric Chavez, said Oakland would prefer to face the Sox than the Twins, who will play the Yankees in the other division series. (The Twins have their own demons to overcome against the Bombers; they were 0-7 against New York this season, 0-6 last season, and haven't beaten the Yanks since May 10, 2001.)

"We get smoked in Minnesota," Chavez told reporters this week. "This team is not equipped to play in that place. They get so many Astroturf hits and we don't because we're not that fast and we don't hit and run. We'd like to stay away from that place. They have a big advantage there."

The A's and Sox met seven times this season, the games all coming in a span of 11 days in August. The A's won four, winning the first two in Oakland, including a two-hit, 93-pitch, 2-0 shutout by Tim Hudson, who outdueled Pedro Martinez in a preview of their Game 1 matchup Wednesday.

Hudson finished 16-7, winning nine of his last 12 decisions. His ERA is 2.70, second in the league to Martinez. Unlike last season, when he had a sore hip muscle, he enters the playoffs healthy. "I'm getting back to my old self," Hudson said after holding the Rangers to one earned run in seven innings Wednesday.

Hudson will have six days' rest before he works Game 1, which gives him sufficient rest in the event he comes back on three days' rest for Game 4. The A's went with a four-man rotation in 2000 and 2001 against the Yankees and lost both times; they went the three-man route last season, and Hudson was ineffective in Game 4.

Macha has not made a decision on how he will approach this series; he will be without lefty Mark Mulder, who will miss the postseason because of a stress fracture in his leg. Lefthander Barry Zito, who won last season's AL Cy Young Award by receiving six more first-place votes than Martinez -- who was a combative loser -- was a .500 pitcher this season, 6-6 with a 3.12 ERA after the All-Star break. But Zito, who will draw the Game 2 assignment, has shown much better command than earlier in the season.

The Game 3 starter will be another lefty, Ted Lilly, who was 7-2, 3.00 ERA, after the break and has won his last five decisions, though the Sox cuffed him around in two starts, rapping him for 13 hits and seven earned runs in 9 1/3 innings.

If the A's elect to use a fourth starter, it will be the Canadian rookie, righthander Rich Harden, who was bombed in a 14-5 loss at Fenway Park Aug. 21, giving up a three-run home run to David Ortiz in the first inning.

The A's have the best home record in baseball, winning a club-record 57 games while losing just 24. The Sox were second, finishing 53-28.

But after losing the first two games of a four-game set at Oakland, the Sox salvaged a split by routing Mulder, then stunning the A's, 4-2, in 10 innings when Manny Ramirez hit a tying home run off A's closer Keith Foulke in the ninth inning. Foulke is the closest thing the A's have to an MVP candidate; that was the only save opportunity he blew in 20 chances after the break (he had a 1.27 ERA in the second half). Setup men Chad Bradford (0.92 ERA since the break) and Ricardo Rincon (2.01) give the A's more dependable relief than the Sox.

The A's also won the first two games in Boston, before the Sox salvaged the finale against Harden.

The A's were 12th in the league in hitting, 10th in the league in on-base percentage, and just eighth in runs scored. They hit just .224 against the Sox this season; the Orioles were the only team to hold Oakland to a lower average (.212).

Miguel Tejada, last season's MVP, hit .357 against the Sox, and outfielder Jose Guillen, who fractured the hamate bone in his left hand Sept. 14, is still playing, hitting a home run Wednesday against the Rangers. But Macha was so desperate for offense he used former Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg as leadoff man against Boston. Hatteberg hit just .185 against the Sox with one RBI; in 60 games since the break, he has just 17 RBIs.

Designated hitter Erubiel Durazo has been a disappointment (3 for 22, .136 against the Sox) but has been swinging better and is expected to be the everyday DH. Guillen probably will platoon with Billy McMillon in left, with Eric Byrnes supplanting Chris Singleton in center and Jermaine Dye playing right.

The lefthanded-hitting Chavez, who had his usually productive second half (.313, 11 HRs, 49 RBIs), is perhaps Oakland's biggest offensive threat after Tejada, and it is hardly encouraging to the Sox that the A's were rough on Sox closer Byung Hyun Kim (6.23 ERA, 1-1, 3 runs in 4 1/3 innings). The A's also pounded potential Game 4 starter John Burkett for five runs in the first inning Aug. 12, Chavez and Terrence Long both going deep.

But the A's, whose .257 average at home was 57 points lower than the .314 the Sox were hitting at home before last night's clinching win, don't expect to advance by outhitting the Sox. For the A's to advance, it will be all about their pitching.

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